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[RISOS #6] Pluralities of Power in Indonesia: Law, Traditional Arts, and Religious Freedom

  August 1st 2022


Written by Maurisa Zinira

Human relations are influenced by the operationalization of power, including those carried out by state institutions. In Indonesia, the practice of power played by the government is often authoritarian as it continues to emphasize the assimilation of various local powers into the structure and logic of the government. Often local people are forced to give up some of their cultural values ​​to adapt to these demands. As a result, discrimination and marginalization often arise due to unequal power relations between state authorities and minority groups.

The Reading in Social Science forum raised this concern in its 6th meeting entitled "Ragam Kuasa di Indonesia: Hukum, Seni Tradisional, dan Kebebasan Beragama (Pluralities of Power in Indonesia: Law, Traditional Arts, and Religious Freedom)". The forum that was held on June 24, 2022, discussed Lorraine V. Aragon's article entitled "Pluralities of Power in Indonesia's Intellectual Property Law, Regional Arts, and Religious Freedom Debates" published in Anthropological Forum, 2022, VOL. 32, NO. 1, 20–40. Came as the speakers at the forum were Samsul Maarif—the head of the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies and Asfinawati—a lecturer at the Indonesian Law College, Jantera.

Narratives and the Practice of Power in Indonesia

In her article, Aragon mentions that power has various models and characters. Through her research on two regulations in Indonesia regarding the expression of traditional arts through intellectual property law and the Constitutional Court ruling 97/2016, Aragon concludes that plurality of power exists, negotiates, and even overlaps with each other due to their different characters where one is unilateral and the other decentralized. This variety has existed even before the regulation emerged as something embodied in the life of Southeast Asian people. The differences in power models lead to different narratives and practices in the regulations that emerge later.

Aragon's opinion on the plurality of power departs from Benedict Anderson's view of the concentration of oneness by rulers and fluid cosmic forces. The first is an authoritarian hierarchy based on singular principles traceable to Indic prehistory, while the second is based on local cosmological concepts of ancestral authority and practice, which invokes precedence through origins and negotiated alliances. It is more decentralized and fluid over time, built on negotiation between differences. These two types of power contrast with the Euro-American model of power, which Anderson describes as heterogeneous, potentially infinite, and morally questionable. It is an abstract concept that describes relationships of obedience or compulsion.

In her article, Aragon avoids analysis that puts forward a binary analysis of dividing power in terms of “West from the rest” or the strong from the weak. This is because the differences in power in Southeast Asia are more of historical heritage—hereditary and become the character of the society that influences various distributions and relations of power, including religion. Aragon mentions, “Instead, the historical and contemporary evidence indicates that both authoritarian unity and more inclusive diversity framings of power have coexisted in Indonesia, and Southeast Asia generally, for a long time. Sometimes they overlap in time and place with or without notable friction." She claims that the two powers continue to co-exist with the alternative of internationally supported arguments such as human rights, religious freedom, or indigenous heritage protection.

The deployment of the two power models is illustrated in the law on intellectual property and the Constitutional Court ruling 97/2016. In the first issue, the Indonesian government requires that local cultural products in the form of dances, ritual performances, graphic arts (mostly handmade products), etc., be registered with the government through intellectual property law (IP). The government pursued training to build public awareness and encourage them to develop cultural arts to protect their rights and support the improvement of community welfare. Unfortunately, along with efforts to achieve these goals, its practices often turn cultural products into economic and business commodities, which results in the relinquishment of local values, including the cosmic ones. The cosmic power that underlies various cultures is diminished, causing the loss of respect and recognition for local beliefs embraced by the people who own the culture. This situation is exacerbated by the obligation to include the religious identity on the identity card. Although the Constitutional Court now grants freedom for believers to practice their faith and to decide for themselves the identity of their preference, this right has not fully guaranteed the fulfillment of other rights, considering that the negative stereotypes of the community towards believers are still high.

 Power and Control

The plurality of power that has emerged in Indonesia is not devoid of context. In contrast with Aragon who sees the two powers mentioned earlier as unique ancestral heritage, Samsul Maarif—the discussant of the forum—argues that the power operated by the state is heavily influenced by the Western paradigm. The hierarchical order as shown by the government through the two regulations is the adoption and adaptation of the Western framing of power.

In this paradigm, art is often disconnected from religion. Secularism places religion in the private sphere as something sacred, which is entirely different from any worldly life, including art. As a result, various (art) cultural activities as a manifestation of belief are often considered heretical when they differ from official religious interpretations. The definition of "religion" in Indonesia refers to the concept of religion which limits the definition to several provisions, namely (1) an encompassing way of life with concrete regulations, (2) teaching about the oneness of God, (3) having a holy book, which codifies a message sent down to prophet(s) through a holy spirit; and (4) be led by a prophet.[1] With this framework, beliefs that are outside this working framework are therefore superstitious

Such a division of concepts and terms continues to be a mechanism for state control over citizens. This hierarchical authority model is also included in the concepts of democracy, human rights, and religious freedom which, although aimed at protecting minorities, still leaves problems of state control. This is also a concern of Asfinawati who sees the risk of belief being administered by the population administration office. It may be that the inclusion of trust in the ID card is not really intended to accommodate citizenship rights but, on the contrary for minority control.

Such a power model is very much at odds with local power that comes from community belief. According to Maarif, cosmic power, as seen from various local communities in Indonesia, is not oriented toward control, but toward cosmic balance that is open to various expressions and promotes inclusiveness. Under this framework, art is not separated from belief because religious ideas are reflected in songs, dances, ornaments, and various other rituals/performances.

Unfortunately, various regulations and even concepts of human rights and democracy also sort and divide art and religion/faith into something different. As a result, local values, including cosmic power, are neglected in various discussions around the law, democracy, and human rights. Asfinawati herself claims that the universality of human rights severely limits diversity that potentially excludes different practices and ideas. Therefore, the human right should be positioned as a norm, but rather as a discourse that accommodates debates and brings various values to life. Maarif proposed that the idea developed with the Western paradigm should not be rejected. It should instead be positioned as the lingua franca in global discussions regarding human dignity. It needs to be engaged for us to come up with more inclusive narratives.



[1] Sita Hidayah, “The Politics of Religion: The Invention of “Agama” in Indonesia”, Kawistara, Vol.2, No. 2, 17 Agustus 2012. p. 125

Recorded discussion: